Russian translator fought to get American novels past censors

? Unless you knew that Tatiana Kudriavtseva survived war and communism, then stood firm against Cold War prejudices to become a prolific translator of America’s finest literature, you might be surprised by the petite, gray-haired woman’s strong handshake.

In a career that has spanned more than half a century, Kudriavtseva, 84, is the Russian voice of dozens of American writers from Jack London to William Styron to Joyce Carol Oates.

She has translated masterworks such as “Gone With the Wind” and “Sophie’s Choice,” while forging friendships with such disparate and pugnacious personalities as Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer and John Updike.

Updike called her a woman of “high intelligence and aesthetic passion,” but also one of courage.

“At a time when such a pursuit was not only technically difficult but politically dangerous, she was the main bridge between American writing and the Russian language,” Updike says.

Seated in the Columbia home of her daughter, Nina Loory, Kudriavtseva says that good translators are good listeners. She must hear the writer’s voice, she says. She said she isn’t so much reading as “listening to a tale told by the writer.” Her job is to connect each reader to what should be a universal experience.

“If reading the original text you laugh, the Russian reader has to laugh too,” she says. “If you cry, the Russian reader must cry.”

Translating American literature during the Cold War was not a promising occupation in Russia. But the determination Kudriavtseva showed as a child raised under difficult circumstances would serve her career well.

In 1926, the government stripped her father of his business and sent him to a labor camp. Kudriavtseva’s mother had to work as a cashier in an amusement park to care for her two daughters. Kudriavtseva acquired tuberculosis and didn’t go to school until she was 10. By that time, she had already read a collection of classic French children’s literature. At 20, Kudriavtseva could speak Japanese, French and English.

Kudriavtseva got her start as a translator at age 19. Russia’s intellectuals had “practically been exterminated,” she recalls, forcing the government to launch a language institute.

Kudriavtseva was one of 75 students recruited for the first class. Her English teacher, an American, spoke terrible Russian but gave her a passion for American literature.

She later married, had a child and divorced, and by the early 1950s, was translating classics by Mark Twain, Jack London and others. She remarried and was hired as an editor for a magazine beginning what she calls “the most fascinating period of my life.”

Under the Soviet regime, all newspapers, magazines and other media were subject to the whims of an anonymous censor from the Central Party Committee. Romantic and racy novels, and detective and adventure stories were forbidden, she says. For 18 years, Kudriavtseva battled with the Communist Party over publication of “Gone With the Wind.” Her translation of Margaret Mitchell’s best-seller was finally published in 1982, but not until after she burst into tears of frustration in front of the censors. Her version has sold more than 4 million copies in Russia.

“I had to find ways to go around the rules,” she recalls. “And I did.”

Kudriavtseva splits her time between Moscow and Columbia, where she stays with her daughter, a former Bolshoi ballerina, and her daughter’s husband. Kudriavtseva stays busy translating, though for shorter periods of time.

Once a month, she joins “The Old Neighbors,” a literary club formed by 10 professional women in Columbia.

Then, she puts herself back to work.

“Unfortunately, I don’t give myself a respite,” she says. “When I want something done, I push, and push and push until it’s done.”